Pilgrim: An American Gives Thanks in England
It was five o’clock on Thanksgiving evening, and there was only one container of cranberries in the entire city of Oxford.
I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t want to believe it, but there was no question about it. I had bought the last container in Sainsbury’s; Tesco’s, the other major supermarket in town, didn’t have any at all, and neither did any of the half-dozen local groceries I stopped at on my route. The recipe called for 500 grams of cranberries, but only 250 were to be found. There was no way around it: we would have half as much cranberry sauce as we expected.
We at 63 Vicarage Road were working frantically, cooking and cleaning with the urgency shown only by those expecting guests. We wanted to make the night memorable, not only for the dozen or so students of the SLC at Oxford program who would be there, but especially for our half-dozen British guests: they were full-time Oxford students who served as our cultural and academic hosts. We saw this as our big chance to impress the English with an American specialty—a feast. We would show them a meal big enough to put the full English breakfast (eggs, sausage, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and fried bread) to shame.
I, for one, found this oddly incongruous. Surely we were supposed to be taking part in English cultural rituals, rather than bringing ours here? And Thanksgiving is a feast day celebrating some people who found England lacking and came to America. But that hadn’t deterred our British friends from coming, inspired mostly by the promise of free food but at least partly by the curiosity as to what, exactly, this Thanksgiving thing was.
I don’t know why I was bemused, though—this really fit the pattern of our time in England to that point. Ever since we had arrived, the English had seemed reluctant to impose their culture on us, to instruct us on points of British custom and etiquette. It might have been the famous British reserve the program office was always telling us about; more topically, they might have been unsure how to approach us, three weeks after September 11. Or perhaps it was our voices; if the English had expected us to be somber and morose in wake of the recent disaster, they soon learned better. (You could always tell who was American in Oxford, even aside from the accents, because they were audible from a block away. Whenever a group of us were at a social event, many of the British students, especially the first-years, had perpetually startled expressions on their faces, as if they were listening to a never-ending thunderclap.)
Food, in fact, was among our real cultural contributions. I happened to find the three-foot-wide aisle section at Sainsbury’s that sold one brand of tortillas, one brand of refried beans, and so forth; thus was taco night brought to Vicarage Road, and tacos brought to several British friends who had nothing to compare them with but falafel wrapped in pita bread. A friend from home sent a care package with graham crackers, Hershey’s chocolate (not the far superior Cadbury’s; after all, we were missionaries), and marshmallows; we set up a grill and insisted that our reluctant hosts try s’mores. A college student eating s’mores for the first time is experiencing a classic case of bad timing—akin to discovering Saturday morning cartoons at age 35—but some of them liked it, and anyway we had tried Marmite so it was their turn to have something strange.
Thanksgiving was the key event, though, our great presentation of America, a sign that our nothing-by-half attitudes did more than just irritate Europeans. Hence my frustration at the reduced recipe; would the English view us as a people who skimped on cranberry sauce? It turned out we had enough food so that the half-portion didn’t matter. We fed fifteen people, and had enough food left over to choke our two refrigerators.
There were as many dishes as people: sweet potatoes, rolls, a sort of cabbage pastry my Russian-American housemate prepared. (The cranberry sauce was finished by the time people were starting on thirds; it got very good reviews.)
As good as the food was, though, the conversation was better. We discussed one of our favorite topics—the many odd differences between England and America. I told one of my housemates, an American, about the dearth of cranberries in Oxford, and he was shocked and indignant. “What do you do with your bogs here?” he demanded of a nearby Brit.
We told our British guests about Thanksgivings past, about all the foods we would have liked to cook for them: pumpkin pie, biscuits with gravy, cornbread. Food was our common language: they told us about Christmas dinners and feasts in Hall, with goose and mysterious dishes like toad-in-the-hole.
Somehow, in all that conversation, no one mentioned the Pilgrims at all.
— Thomas Hitchner ’03
Hitchner participated in the Sarah Lawrence in Oxford program during 2001-2002.